What makes a great public place? Is it the buildings, framing the action with grandiose architectural form? Maybe it’s the street-level activity of markets, sidewalk cafés, and well-used parks on a hot day. Or perhaps what makes a place thrive are the people who give it character and identity. How can we create public spaces which are vibrant, inviting, and beautiful?
These are some of the questions I hope to answer this summer as I work with Project for Public Spaces in New York City. My name is Amy Tomasso and I’m a rising junior at Stanford majoring in Urban Studies with a concentration in Urban Sustainability. Aside from Urban Studies, I’m fascinated by food systems and politics, a personal interest I explore as a passionate cook and vegan. I am happiest in nature and love to be outdoors, whether hiking, backpacking, skiing, or simply exploring. While this seems oxymoronic to my interest in cities, I assure you it isn’t!; I hope to bring the nature I love to cities through green space and a respect for the urban-rural divide. I also avidly read, write, and do yoga in my spare time. After studying cities informally and formally for years and growing up in rural Connecticut, this will be my first time living in a true urban environment!
(Exploring a great public space–the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC!)
I believe in the power of public space to define communities and serve as an equalizer between the diverse array of urban residents. I was first drawn to this idea while visiting my family’s ancestral village high in the mountains of Italy. Despite my village’s small scale, its central piazza was constantly abuzz with activity and excitement. The piazza was the focal point of the village from which all social interactions were born; people of all ages flocked to this public space every night to mingle and review the day’s news. I saw the same ingenious city planning repeated in nearby Rome, which is arguably one of the oldest master planned cities. This kind of organic, pedestrian-oriented meet-up was so different from the auto-centric strip malls I was so familiar with in the U.S.
(Abbateggio, my family’s village in Italy, was an original source of inspiration on my path to Urban Studies).
I became captivated by public space and its transformative power on communities, both urban and suburban. Having volunteered for four years at a Boys and Girls Club in inner-city Connecticut, I saw how neighborhoods lacking public space amenities like parks and playgrounds can become traps for their inhabitants. Public space can infuse downtrodden neighborhoods with life and common purpose.
I am thrilled to be exploring public spaces firsthand this summer in NYC, a city where some of the most iconic monuments—Rockefeller Center, Central Park, Union Square—are classic examples of public space. Project for Public Spaces, my partner organization, has pioneered the innovate strategy of Placemaking as a way to engage community members in the creation of projects which directly serve their needs. I can’t wait to see the Placemaking process firsthand throughout the summer. PPS was founded in 1975 to expand the work of urban maverick William Holly Whyte, whose works such as The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces changed the way urbanites everywhere interact with their cities. Now, PPS has worked in 43 countries and all 50 states to uplift communities through a strong built environment
We interact on a daily basis with the immediate world around us, whether subconsciously or consciously, and the built environment shapes our lives and routines. I invite you to begin to dialogue with the world around you as you pass through the public spaces you encounter. What do they mean to you? I hope in time you too will come to recognize the power of public space, and I look forward to sharing in this discovery.